'The fragrance of Old Roses' by Robert Calkin


Part of our fascination with roses stems from their extraordinary variety. No other group of plants in
horticulture seems capable of producing such an array of wonderful colours and forms. Yet what is
sometimes overlooked is that this applies equally to the diversity of their fragrance. Famous old
varieties such as ‘Lady Hillingdon’, ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’, ‘Desprez à Fleur Jaune’, ‘Sophie’s
Perpetual’, ‘Belle de Crécy’, ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’, ‘Ispahan’, ‘Seagull’, and ‘Splendens’, each have
fragrances which are not only entirely different, but the quality of their fragrance has given each rose
an enduring place in cultivation quite apart from its visual beauty. Having spent my working life as a
perfumer I never cease to wonder at the extraordinary beauty of fragrance to be found in roses such
as these.
The chemical composition of the rose fragrance, in all its variety, is immensely complicated. Analysis
of the fragrant essential oil extracted from the flowers of R. damascena ‘Kazanlik’ – the rose most
widely grown for the production of rose otto used by the perfumery industry – has so far disclosed
nearly 400 identified constituents. ‘Head space’ analysis can now capture and analyse the fragrance
as it leaves the flower, giving a truer representation of the fragrance as we actually smell it.
Hundreds of roses have been studied in this way, and although many details have yet to be
published, it is clear that the total number of ingredients found across the whole range of species and
hybrids is considerably greater than the number found in the ‘Kazanlik’ rose.
If we examine the composition of this rose in more detail we find that approximately 85% by volume
of the fragrant oil is made up of only four materials, another ten represent approximately 10%, with
the remaining several hundred constituents in the final 5% of the oil. This type of composition is
found not only in the scent of roses but in many other flowers such as jasmin, narcissus, and
lavender. In R. gallica and the groups descended from it, the Damasks, Centifolias and Albas, the
major components are the so-called rose alcohols: phenylethyl alcohol, citronellol, geraniol and
nerol, which occur in different proportions from one rose to another. Phenylethyl alcohol has a soft
petal-like character typical of the lighter coloured Gallicas and is the main ingredient of commercially produced rose
water. Citronellol has a wonderfully warm and vibrant character perhaps best smelled in some of the Rugosa hybrids
such as ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’. Geraniol is similar but with a somewhat sharper character reminiscent of
geranium leaves, while nerol is the harshest of these and fresher. All these materials, which are widely used by the
perfumery industry, are essentially rosy in character and together form the basis of the typical ‘Old Rose’ fragrance
of the European roses and Rugosas. On their own, however, they would make a poor fragrance, for it is the
hundreds of other materials, many of which are quite unrose-like in character and some of which are intensely
strong, that provide the individuality, depth and carrying power. Why this type of composition which evolved for the
‘delight’ of insects, should appeal to our own sense of the beautiful is not understood, but it is equally important in
the creation of fine perfumes.
The fragrance of R. gigantea , the ancestral species from which the Tea-scented roses were derived, has a similar
composition with two types of material making up the heart of the fragrance. One of these, dimethoxy toluene, which
has a slightly tary and humid character (as in a greenhouse), represents 50% of the fragrance and is unique to this
rose and its descendants. The other, dihydro-beta-ionol, which represents about 10%, has an earthy, violet
character. This material is also found in smaller amounts in R. chinensis, another presumed parent of the Tea roses
and a grandparent of the Tea Noisettes. This and related materials, the ionones, can best be smelled in the
wonderful Hybrid Musk rose ‘Buff Beauty’, and in the Banksian roses. (From the olfactory evidence I suspect that the
Banksians, with their intense violet character, may also have been involved somewhere along the line in the Tea
rose ancestry).


is partly responsible for the raspberry character of many modern hybrids such as the famous ‘Queen Elizabeth’ rose. has one of the most pungent and diffusive of fragrances. and ‘Agnes’. just as the stamens reach maturity.) One of the most important marriages in the genealogy of roses was that between ‘Quatre Saisons’ and ‘Old Blush’. arvensis and a variety of R. The word `musk’ comes from the Himalayan Musk Deer whose scent. descended from R. A similar failure occurred in many of the R. ‘Ruga’ and ‘Splendens’. this character. is probably a result of this effect. beginning with ‘Constance Spry’ and reaching new levels of intensity in such varieties as the beautiful ‘Scepter’d Isle’ and ‘St Cecilia’. pimpinellifolia Autumn Damask). but it was also responsible for the typical Bourbon fragrance. dihydro-beta-ionone. the fragrance of which is closely related in composition to that of the Tea-scented roses. with an over sweet. ‘Blush Noisette’ is another example of a less than immediately happy coupling – to my nose at least. chinensis ‘Old Blush’). due to the presence of hexenols (mainly cis-3. Not only did this introduce the gene for continual flowering into the European rose. which makes a minor contribution to the fragrance of R. this remarkable rose was the parent of the incomparably perfumed Tea Noisettes. foetida . Other examples include the exquisitely simple fragrance of ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ ( R. their double-flowered descendants (with few stamens) have little or no fragrance. Occasionally. In these examples the resultant fragrance can be seen at least in part as a blending of those of the two parents with a certain amount of rebalancing. moschata. the parents of this rose were R. rugosa and R. the result of the somewhat unlikely cross between R. involving members of the Synstylae in which the fragrance is largely confined to the stamens. The lack of fragrance in some modern Floribundas. a scent which perfectly matches the colour and form of its flowers. chinensis probably ‘Old Blush’. Although ‘Blush Noisette’ is frequently described as clove-scented. such as the marvellous Hybrid Musks descended from ‘Trier’. resulting from crosses between R. (Although I have not smelled ‘Champneys’ Pink Cluster’ of which it was a seedling. ‘Quatre Saison’. Not all the early crosses were olfactorily ‘successful’. This took place in the Reunion. moschata and R. This material has reappeared in many of the English Roses of David Austin. somewhat marshmallowlike character coming from phenylethyl acetate. All these roses have the wonderful ability to fill the air with fragrance across a garden. only appears spasmodically.Another of these materials. with almost no European influence. gallica with the exotic spicy character of R. The ‘Musk Rose’. Sadly this extraordinary character carried in the stamens of many of the old roses. or Bourbon Isles. is similarly diffusive. (as opposed to the single remontancy of the Autumn Damask). which inherited 2/4 . whatever its own shortcomings. ‘Blush Noisette’s powerful fragrance combines an intense green character. However. moschata. combining the brilliance of the Damask scent with a rich fruity character. although this. moschata and R. arvensis seedlings. This occurred in two roses. the Autumn Damask. and although this has now become an established convention the smell has little to do with that of real myrrh. chinensis . multiflora . For example. to my nose one of the most beautifully scented of roses (if sunshine had a smell this would be it!) is a wonderful blend of the translucent old rose quality of R. Both ‘Ruga’ and ‘Splendens’ have a fresh anis character due to the dominance of a single material 4-vinyl anisole. In some.hexenol and cis-3-hexenyl acetate) inherited from R. another member of the Synstylae has a delicious clove-like scent. with its intense verbena character. is absent in most modern roses. Something approaching a true myrrh character can be found as part of the fragrance of the Hybrid Musk ‘Penelope’. which subsequently became one of the main centres for the production of raw materials for the French perfumery industry. (Such roses are usually described as myrrh-scented. Some of the most remarkable fragrances have resulted from crosses between two species or near species. known in Europe since the middle ages and widely used in classical perfumery. the more correctly named ‘musk rose’ of Shakespeare. however. the combined chemistry of the two parents will throw up something entirely new. moschata . R. which can be described as smelling of cut grass and banana skins. which also comes from its moschata parent.

so the comparison may not be strictly fair. as well as ‘Deprez à Fleur Jaune’ with its amazing apricot and jasmin fragrance which probably owes more to its chinensis grandparent. I suspect that the introduction into the gene pool of ‘Slater’s Crimson China’ with its extraordinary beer-like fragrance may also have had a detrimental influence. A summary of the main types of fragrance found in old roses is given in the accompanying table [ readers need to consult the original journal to see the table – Ed ]. Incidently. For instance. Japan. E-j. and the intriguing blend of the ‘tea’ and ‘myrrh’ scents in ‘The Pilgrim’. the pure Old Rose fragrance produced by the petals gives way to a light musk note. G. where available. the wild strawberry note in ‘The Countryman’. there are roses which don’t fit comfortably into any of these categories. by introducing some of the species and early hybrids into the breeding programme. Nevertheless. in the conservatory at the home of Maurice and Rosemary Foster. so my assessment is open to confirmation. a hardness to the quality of their fragrance which fails to draw one in like the wonderful ‘Reine des Violettes’ and ‘Georg Arends’. which is often quite different to that of the petals. Inevitably.most of their fragrance from their Tea-scented ancestor ‘Park’s Yellow China’. Repeated hybridization has produced increasingly random mixtures of sometimes incompatible fragrances. the delicious white wine character of ‘Sharifa Asma’. In R. as in any such classification. coming from the stamens. Although purists may object to some of these innovations it would be a dull world if all new roses smelled the same as their ancestors. Varieties such as ‘Hugh Dixon’ and ‘Ulrich Brunner’ have. 3/4 . Perhaps it was having a bad day ! But it would be wrong to write off the fragrance of modern roses such as the Hybrid Teas simply as being inferior to that of their ancestors. It is frequently said that the fragrance of most modern roses. gallica officinalis . 3. Dragoco Research. but by no means all. which. China roses are a fascinating and mysterious subject in their own right. like a badly made perfume. Schmaus. A. lacks the exquisite beauty and depth of their early ancestors. and this is particularly true of the old China roses. K. but some exciting new ‘directions’ have been introduced. retained the successful combinations and balances of components which were ‘discovered’ by nature over millions of years of evolution. Germany (unpublished). too many to give individual samples. Brunke. have remarkable and beautiful scents which make a wonderful contribution to our gardens. Germany. Apart from the Synstylae many other roses produce a fragrance in their stamens. Japan. One of the great attractions of the rose lies in its “infinite variety”. 4. the quality of their fragrance seems to show a deterioration. Many. though this is not necessarily true of the strength. Joichi. not only have some of the great fragrances of the past been recaptured. to my nose at least. Holzminden. Dragoco Research. Yomogida. et al. In the development of David Austin’s English Roses. As with colour in painting the excessive mixing of pigments can lead to a general effect of ‘muddiness’. Acknowledgements 1. The Hybrid Perpetuals were the product of a frenzied period of hybridization between European and Chinese roses and now in some Hybrid Perpetuals. et al. this combination of smells is used also by perfumers. the soft almondy-lilac character of ‘Cottage Rose’. After well over a thousand years of hybridization both in the wild and in the ancient gardens of China. being closer to the original species. by the results of head space analysis. This is backed up. One of the most remarkable is the widely grown ‘Roseraie de l’Haÿ’ in which the typically sumptous Rugosa fragrance of the petals contrasts with the fresh cucumber-like smell of the stamens. No doubt many of the poorer old varieties have long since disappeared from our gardens. Holzminden. however beautiful these may have been. which are closer in style to their Bourbon and Damask ancestors. lacked either a well defined character or ‘lift’. as the flowers mature. 2. Shiseido Research. Shiseido Research. I have only once smelled this rose. many of the old roses. although sometimes strong.

Practice and Principles.Robert Calkin has spent 40 years in the perfumery industry and is the co-author of Perfumery. Recently retired he has been studying the fragrance of roses . This article appeared in the Spring 1999 issue. For copyright reasons none of the colour photos (usually 25-30 per issue) which originally illustrated the articles have been reproduced here page top 4/4 .